Sewer Capacity Vexes Lebanon City Council

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lebanon — City councilors continue to struggle to devise a plan to prevent Lebanon’s sewer system from reaching capacity, averting what officials say is a “clear and present emergency.”

City officials have said under the existing formula, the system is only designed to accommodate about 40 more single-family homes before it reaches a problematic threshold.

Councilors debated on Wednesday how to temporarily limit new construction while also signaling to developers they’re working to find a long term solution.

Some argued sewer capacity estimates should be adjusted to bring the city more in line with how the state calculates sewer flows. This wouldn’t add capacity to the system but it would alleviate the problem.

Others argued such a move is premature and the city should wait until more information is available.

“If you look at comparable communities the (sewer estimates) are just not even defensible,” said Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara, according to an audio recording of the Wednesday meeting. “I worry about people saying ‘I’m just not going to bring an application to Lebanon for anything.’ ”

The issue with Lebanon’s sewer system became apparent to officials in July, when a wastewater study showed the system was nearing 80 percent capacity, a city-mandated red line.

The study, performed by consulting firm Wright-Pierce, found a major part of the sewer line, known as an interceptor, was largely to blame.

The section of multiple pipes carries sewage from downtown to the wastewater treatment plant in West Lebanon.

At the time, officials estimated the line could handle an additional 110,000 gallons of wastewater per day, or about 70 single-family homes, before hitting the threshold.

However, that number was updated on Wednesday to roughly 136,000 gallons. Using more recent figures, Interim City Manager Paula Maville also downgraded the number of homes that could be built to 37.

City Councilors were presented with two short-term fixes on Wednesday.

The first would prevent any landowner east of Exit 19 from applying for a sewer extension over 16,800 gallons per day, which would effectively block any proposal seeking to build more than 10 homes.

The prohibition would expire after a year.

By that time, Maville said, the results of a five-year monitoring project will be complete and the city will have better data on the sewer system’s problems.

City Hall staff members also have recommended changing how sewage flows are calculated. Under new rules, a four-bedroom home would utilize 1,680 gallons of wastewater per day instead of the current city standard of 3,600 gallons.

In a memo to the City Council, Maville said the rules would more closely align Lebanon’s estimates with those of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

It’s a change that several developers and engineers have called on the city to make, including Doug Homan, who proposed the 306-home Carter Country Club Houses on the Hill subdivision.

The Wright-Pierce study was produced as part of the preliminary review for Homan’s project, which stalled last month partially because of lingering questions about the sewer system.

Some councilors worried on Wednesday that changing sewer estimates before receiving the results of a long-term monitoring project would be unwise.

“Are we running a risk by changing the standard now without fully studying the whole system or having data on the whole system?” City Councilor Shane Smith asked.

Public works officials at the meeting said even with the change, that the city would be remaining conservative with its estimates.

Councilor Jim Winny expressed similar concerns, saying it would make more sense to wait until all the data is in.

“I think staying conservative might be a good move until we actually have our hands on the data,” he said.

McNamara argued lowering the sewer estimates was necessary to bring Lebanon in line with many other New Hampshire communities. There’s a demand for more homes in the city, he said, adding developers should be granted some relief.

“I think the standard that we’ve had is so incredibly conservative as to almost defy imagination,” McNamara said.

Ultimately, councilors voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing on sewer system capacity for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 6.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.